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In St. Patrick's Ward by Mrs. Francis Blundell

 

It was intensely, suffocatingly hot, though the windows on either side of the long room were wide open; the patients lay languidly watching the flies on the ceiling, the sunshine streaming over the ochre-tinted wall, the flickering light of the little lamp which burned night and day beneath the large coloured statue of St. Patrick in the centre of the ward. It was too hot even to talk. Granny M'Gee--who, though not exactly ill, was old and delicate enough to be permitted to remain permanently in the Union Infirmary instead of being relegated to the workhouse proper--dozed in her wicker chair with her empty pipe between her wrinkled fingers. Once, as she loved to relate, she had burnt her lovely fringe with that same pipe--"bad luck to it!" but she invariably hastened to add that her heart 'ud be broke out an' out if it wasn't for the taste o' baccy. Her neighbour opposite was equally fond of snuff, and was usually to be heard lamenting how she had r'ared a fine fam'ly o' boys an' girls, and how notwithstanding she had ne'er a wan to buy her a ha'porth in her ould age. Now, however, for a wonder she was silent, and even the woman nearest the door found it too hot to brandish her distorted wrists, according to her custom when she wished to excite compassion or to plead for alms. There would be no visitors this morning; not the most compassionate of "the ladies," who came to read to and otherwise cheer the poor sufferers of St. Patrick's ward, would venture there on such a day.

The buzzing of the flies aforesaid, the occasional moans of the more feeble patients, the hurried breathing of a poor girl in the last stage of consumption were the only sounds to be heard, except for the quiet footsteps and gentle voice of Sister Louise. There was something refreshing in the very sight of this tall slight figure, in its blue-grey habit and dazzling white "cornette," from beneath which the dark eyes looked forth with sweet and almost childish directness. Sister Louise was not indeed much more than a child in years, and there were still certain inflections in her voice, an elasticity in her movements, a something about her very hands, with their little pink palms and dimpled knuckles, that betrayed the fact. But those babyish hands had done good service since Sister Louise had left the novitiate in the Rue du Bac two years before; that young voice had a marvellous power of its own, and could exhort and reprove as well as soothe and console, and when the blue-robed figure was seen flitting up and down the ward smiles appeared on wan and sorrowful faces, and querulous murmurs were hushed. Even to-day the patients nodded to her languidly as she passed, observing with transitory cheerfulness that they were kilt with the hate, or that it was terrible weather entirely. One crone raised herself sufficiently to remark that it was a fine thing for the counthry, glory be to God! which patriotic sentiment won a smile from Sister Louise, but failed to awaken much enthusiasm in any one else.

The Sister of Charity paused before a bed in which a little, very thin old woman was coiled up with eyes half closed. Mrs. Brady was the latest arrival at St. Patrick's ward, having indeed only "come in" on the preceding day, and Sister Louise thought she would very likely need a little cheering.

"How are you to-day, Mrs. Brady!" she asked, bending over her.

"Why then indeed, ma'am--is it ma'am or Mother I ought to call ye?"

"'Sister'--we are all Sisters here, though some of the people call Sister Superior 'Reverend Mother.'"

"Ah, that indeed?" said Mrs. Brady, raising herself a little in the bed and speaking with great dignity, "Ye see yous are not the sort o' nuns I'm used to, so you'll excuse me if I don't altogether spake the way I ought. Our nuns down in the Queen's County has black veils ye know, ma'am--Sisther I mane--an' not that kind of a white bonnet that you have on your head."

"Well, do you know our patients here get quite fond of our white wings as they call them?" returned Sister Louise, smiling. "But you haven't told me how you are, yet. Better, I hope, and pretty comfortable."

A tear suddenly rolled down Mrs. Brady's cheek, but she preserved her lofty manner.

"Ah yes, thank ye, Sisther, as comfortable as I could expect in a place like this. Of course I niver thought it's here' I'd be, but it's on'y for a short time, thanks be to God! My little boy'll be comin' home from America soon to take me out of it."

"Why, that's good news!" cried the Sister cheerfully. "We must make you quite well and strong--that is as strong as we can"--with a compassionate glance, "by the time he comes. When do you expect him?"

"Any day now, ma'am--Sisther, I mane--aye, indeed, I may say any day an' every day, an' I'm afeard his heart'll be broke findin' me in this place. But no matther!"

Here she shook her head darkly, as though she could say much on that subject, but refrained out of consideration for Sister Louise.

"Well, we must do all we can for you meanwhile," said the latter gently. "Have you made acquaintance with your neighbours yet? Poor Mrs. M'Evoy here is worse off than you, for she can't lift her head just now. Tell Mrs. Brady how it was you hurt your back, Mrs. M'Evoy."

"Bedad, Sisther, ye know yerself it was into the canal I fell wid a can o' milk," said the old woman addressed, squinting fearfully in her efforts to catch a glimpse of the new patient. "The Bishop says the last time he come round, 'I s'pose,' he says, 'ye were goin' to put wather in the milk.' 'No,' says I, 'there was wather enough in it before.'"

Here Mrs. M'Evoy leered gleefully up at the Sister, and one or two feeble chuckles were heard from the neighbouring beds; but Mrs. Brady assumed an attitude which can only be described as one implying a mental drawing away of skirts, and preserved an impenetrable gravity. Evidently she had never associated with "the like" of Mrs. M'Evoy in the circles in which she had hitherto moved.

"And there's Kate Mahony on the other side," pursued Sister Louise, without appearing to notice Mrs. Brady's demeanour. "She has been lying here for seventeen years; haven't you, Kate?"

"Aye, Sisther," said Kate, a thin-faced sweet-looking woman of about forty, looking up brightly.

"Poor Kate!" said the Sister in a caressing tone. "You must get Kate to tell you her story some time, Mrs. Brady. She has seen better days like you."

"Oh, that indeed?" said Mrs. Brady, distantly but politely, and with a dawning interest; "I s'pose you are from the country then, like meself."

"Ah no, ma'am," returned Kate. "I may say I was never three miles away from town. I went into service when I was on'y a slip of a little girl, an' lived with the wan lady till the rheumatic fever took me an' made me what I am now. You're not from this town, I s'pose, ma'am."

"Indeed, I'd be long sorry to come from such a dirty place--beggin' your pardon for sayin' it. No, indeed, I am from the Queen's County, near Mar'boro'. We had the loveliest little farm there ye could see, me an' me poor husband, the Lord ha' mercy on his soul! Aye, indeed, it's little we ever thought--but no matther! Glory be to goodness! my little boy'll be comin' back from America soon to take me out o' this."

"Sure it's well for ye," said Kate, "that has a fine son o' your own to work for ye. Look at me without a crature in the wide world belongin' to me! An' how long is your son in America, ma'am?"

"Goin' on two year now," said Mrs. Brady, with a sigh.

"He'll be apt to be writin' to ye often, I s'pose, ma'am."

"Why then, indeed, not so often. The poor fellow, he was niver much of a hand at the pen. He's movin' about, ye see, gettin' work here an' there."

Sister Louise had moved on, seeing that the pair were likely to make friends; and before ten minutes had elapsed each was in possession of the other's history. Kate's, indeed, was simple enough; her seventeen years in the infirmary being preceded by a quiet life in a very uninteresting neighbourhood; but she "came of decent people," being connected with "the rale ould O'Rorkes," and her father had been "in business"; two circumstances which impressed Mrs. Brady very much, and caused her to unbend towards "Miss Mahony," as she now respectfully called her new acquaintance. The latter was loud in expressions of admiration and sympathy as Mrs. Brady described the splendours of the past; the servant-man and the servant-maid, who, according to her, once formed portion of her establishment; the four beautiful milch cows which her husband kept, besides sheep, and a horse an' car, and "bastes" innumerable; the three little boys they buried, and then Barney--Barney, the jewel, who was now in Amerika.

"The finest little fella ye'd see between this an' County Cork! Over six fut, he is, an' wid a pair o' shoulders on him that ye'd think 'ud hardly get in through that door beyant."

"Lonneys!" said Kate admiringly.

"Aye, indeed, an' ye ought to see the beautiful black curly head of him, an' eyes like sloes, an' cheeks--why I declare"--half raising herself and speaking with great animation, "he's the very moral o' St. Patrick over there! God forgive me for sayin' such a thing, but raly if I was to drop down dead this minute I couldn't but think it! Now I assure ye, Miss Mahony, he's the very image of that blessed statye, 'pon me word!"

Miss Mahony looked appreciatively at the representation of the patron of Ireland, which was remarkable no less for vigour of outline and colouring than for conveying an impression of exceeding cheerfulness, as both the saint himself and the serpent which was wriggling from beneath his feet were smiling in the most affable manner conceivable.

"Mustn't he be the fine boy!" she ejaculated, after a pause. "I'd love to see him--but I'll niver get a chanst o' that, I s'pose. Will he be comin' here to see ye, ma'am?"

"He'll be comin' to take me out of it," returned the mother. "He doesn't raly know I'm in it at all. I'll tell ye now the way it is. When the poor father died--the light o' heaven to him--an' bad times come, and we had to give up our own beautiful little place, Barney brought me to town an' put me with Mrs. Byrne, a very nice respectable woman that was married to a second cousin o' my poor husband's, an' I was to stop with her till he came back from America with his fortune made. Well," pursued Mrs. Brady, drawing in her breath with a sucking sound, which denoted that she had come to an interesting part of her narrative, "well, he kep' sendin' me money, ye know, a pound or maybe thirty shillin' at a time--whenever he could, the poor boy, an' I was able to work the sewin'-machine a little, an' so we made out between us till I took this terrible bad turn. Well, of course troubles niver comes single, an' the last letther I got from my poor little fella had only fifteen shillin' in it, an' he towld me he had the bad luck altogether, but, says he,'My dear mother, ye must on'y howld out the best way ye can. There's no work to be got in this place at all' (New York I think it was). 'But I am goin' out West,' says he, 'to a place where I'm towld there's fortunes made in no time, so I'll be over wid ye soon,' he says, 'wid a power o' money, an' I'm sure Mary Byrne'll be a good friend to ye till then. The worst of it is,' he says, 'it's a terrible wild outlandish place, and I can't be promisin' ye many letthers, for God knows if there'll be a post-office in it at all,' says he; 'but I'll be thinkin' of ye often, an' ye must keep up your heart,' he says. Well," sucking up her breath again, "poor Mrs. Byrne done all she could for me, but of course when it got to be weeks an' months that I was on my back not able to do a hand's turn for meself, an' no money comin' an' no sign o' Barney, what could she do, the crature? One day Dr. Isaacs says to her, 'Mrs. Byrne,' says he, 'why don't ye send poor Mrs. Brady to the Infirmary?' 'What Infirmary, sir?' says she. 'The Union Infirmary,' says he; 'it's the on'y place she's fit for except the Incurables in Dublin,' says he, 'an' I'm afraid there's no chance for there.' 'Oh, docther, don't mention it!' says poor Mrs. Byrne--she was telling me about it aftherwards. 'Is it the Union? I wouldn't name it,' she says, 'to a decent respectable woman like Mrs. Brady. She's a cousin by marriage o' me own,' she says; 'I wouldn't name it to her, I assure ye.' 'Just as you please,' says Docther Isaacs. 'It 'ud be the truest kindness you could do her all the same, for she'd get betther care and nourishment than you could give her.' Well, poor Mrs. Byrne kep' turnin' it over in her mind, but she raly couldn't bring herself to mention it, nor wouldn't, on'y she was druv to it at the end, the crature, with me bein' ill so long, an' the rent comin' so heavy on her an' all. So we settled it between the two of us wan day, an' she passed me her word to bring me Barney's letther--if e'er a wan comes--the very minute she gets it, an' if he comes himself she says she won't let on where I am, all at wanst, but she'll tell him gradual. Sometimes I do be very unaisy in me mind, Miss Mahony, I assure ye, wondherin' what he'll say when he hears. I'm afeared he'll be ready to kill me for bringin' such a disgrace on him."

"Sure, what could ye do?" said Kate, a little tartly, for naturally enough as "an inmate" of many years' standing, she did not quite like her new friend's insistence on this point. "Troth, it's aisy talkin', but it's not so aisy to starve. An' afther all, there's many a one that's worse off nor us here, I can tell ye, especially since the Sisthers come, God bless them, with their holy ways. How'd ye like to be beyant at the ----Union, where the nurses gobbles up all the nourishment that's ordhered for the poor misfortunate cratures that's in it, an leaves thim sthretched from mornin' till night without doin' a hand's turn for them. Aye, an' 'ud go near to kill them if they dar'd let on to the Docther. Sure, don't I know well how it was before the Sisthers was here--we have different times now I can tell ye. Why, that very statye o' St. Pathrick that ye were talkin' of a while ago, wasn't it them brought it? An' there's St. Joseph over in the ward fornenst this, an' St. Elizabeth an' the Holy Mother above. See that now. Isn't it a comfort to be lookin' at them holy things, and to see the blessed Sisthers come walkin' in in the mornin' wid a heavenly smile for every one, an' their holy eyes lookin' into every hole an' corner an' spyin' out what's wrong?"

"Aye, indeed," assented Mrs. Brady, a little faintly though, for however grateful she might be, and comfortable in the main, there was a bitterness in the thought of her "come down" that nothing could alleviate.

She and her neighbour were excellent friends all the same, and she soon shared Kate's enthusiasm for "the Sisthers," finding comfort moreover in the discovery that Sister Louise understood and sympathised with her feelings, and was willing to receive endless confidences on the subject of the "little boy," and to discuss the probability of his speedy advent with almost as much eagerness as herself.

But all too soon it became evident that unless Barney made great haste another than he would take Mrs. Brady "out of" the workhouse. Grim death was approaching with rapid strides, and one day the priest found her so weak that he told her he would come on the morrow to hear her confession and to give her the last Sacraments.

Not one word did the old woman utter in reply. She lay there with her eyes closed and her poor old face puckered up, unheeding all Kate Mahony's attempts at consolation. These, though well meant, were slightly inconsistent, as she now assured her friend that indeed it was well for her, and asked who wouldn't be glad to be out o' that; and in the next moment informed her that maybe when she was anointed she might find herself cured out an' out, as many a wan had before her, an' wasn't it well known that them that the priest laid his holy hands on, as likely as not took a good turn immaydiate?

Later on Sister Louise bent over Mrs. Brady with gentle reassuring words.

"God knows best, you know," she said, at the end of her little homily; "you will say 'His will be done,' won't you?"

"Sure Sisther, how can I?" whispered Mrs. Brady, opening her troubled eyes; her face almost awful to look on in its grey pallor. "How can I say 'His will be done' if I'm to die in the workhouse? An' me poor little boy comin' as fast as he can across the say to take me out of it, an' me breakin' my heart prayin' that I might live to see the day! An' when he comes back he'll find the parish has me buried. Ah, Sisther, how am I to resign meself at all? In the name o' God how am I to resign meself?"

The tears began to trickle down her face, and Sister Louise cried a little too for sympathy, and stroked Mrs. Brady's hand, and coaxed, and cajoled, and soothed and preached to the very best of her ability; and at the end left her patient quiet but apparently unconvinced.

It was with some trepidation that she approached her on the morrow. Mrs. Brady's attitude was so unusual that she felt anxious and alarmed. As a rule the Irish poor die calmly and peacefully, happy in their faith and resignation; but this poor woman stood on the brink of eternity with a heart full of bitterness, and a rebellious will.

Mrs. Brady's first words, however, reassured her.

"Sisther, I'm willin' now to say 'His will be done.'"

"Thank God for that," cried Sister Louise fervently.

"Aye. Well, wait till I tell ye. In the night when I was lying awake I took to lookin' at St. Pathrick beyant, wid the little lamp flickerin' an' flickerin' an' shinin' on his face, an' I thought o' Barney, an' that I'd niver see him agin, an' I burst out cryin'. 'Oh, St Pathrick!' says I, 'how'll I ever be able to make up my mind to it at all?' An' St. Pathrick looked back at me rale wicked. An' 'Oh,' says I again, 'God forgive me, but sure how can I help it?' An' there was St. Pathrick still wid the cross look on him p'intin' to the shamrock in his hand, as much as to say 'There is but the wan God in three divine Persons an' Him ye must obey.' So then I took to baitin' me breast an' sayin' 'The will o' God be done!' an' if ye'll believe me, Sisther, the next time I took heart to look at St. Pathrick there he was smilin' for all the world the moral o' poor Barney. So says I, 'afther that!' Well, Sisther, the will o' God be done! He knows best, Sisther alanna, doesn't He? But," with a weak sob, "my poor little boy's heart 'ill be broke out an' out when he finds I'm afther dyin' in the workhouse!"

"We must pray for him," said the Sister softly; "you must pray for him and offer up the sacrifice that God asks of you, for him. Try not to fret so much. Barney would not like you to fret. He would grieve terribly if he saw you like this."

"Heth he would," said Mrs. Brady, sobbing again.

"Of course he would. But if he heard you were brave and cheerful over it all, it would not be half so bad for him."

Mrs. Brady lay very quiet after this, and seemed to reflect.

When the priest came presently to administer the Sacraments of the dying to her, she roused herself and received them with much devotion, and presently beckoned Sister Louise to approach.

"Sisther, when Barney comes axin' for me, will ye give him me bades an' the little medal that's round me neck, an' tell him I left him me blessin'--will ye, dear?"

"Indeed I will."

"God bless ye! An' tell him," speaking with animation and in rather louder tones. "Tell him I didn't fret at all, an' died quite contint an' happy an'--an' thankful to be in this blessed place, where I got every comfort. Will ye tell him that, Sisther alanna?"

The Sister bowed her head: this time she could not speak.

* * * * *

It was nearly two months afterwards that Sister Louise was summoned to the parlour to see "Mr. Brady," who had recently arrived from America, and to whom his cousin, Mrs. Byrne, had broken the news of his mother's death.

Sister Louise smiled and sighed as she looked at this big, strapping, prosperous-looking young fellow, and remembered his mother's description of him. The black eyes and curly hair and rosy cheeks were all there, certainly, but otherwise the likeness to "St. Patrick" was not so very marked.

"Mr. Brady wants to hear all about his poor mother, Sister," said the Sister Superior. "This is Sister Louise, Mr. Brady, who attended your poor mother to the last."

Mr. Brady, who seemed a taciturn youth, rolled his black eyes towards the new comer and waited for her to proceed.

Very simply did Sister Louise tell her little story, dwelling on such of his mother's sayings, during her last illness, as she thought might interest and comfort him.

"There are her beads, and the little medal, which she always wore. She left them to you with her blessing."

Barney thrust out one huge brown hand and took the little packet, swallowing down what appeared to be a very large lump in his throat.

"She told me," pursued the Sister in rather tremulous tones, "to tell you that she did not fret at all at the last, and died content and happy. She did, indeed, and she told me to say that she was thankful to be here--"

But Barney interrupted her with a sudden incredulous gesture and a big sob, "Ah, whisht, Sisther!" he said.